Interview: Alastair Bruce - Lord of the Manners

Alastair Bruce advises on and has appeared in Downton Abbey
Alastair Bruce advises on and has appeared in Downton Abbey
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He numbers King Robert the Bruce among his ancestors, but Alastair Bruce has found a less exalted role, advising the cast of the hit television series Downton Abbey how to mind their Ps & Qs and still entertain

“IF THERE’S a Duke visiting an Earl, then the Duke sits on the Countess’s right. Fact. Finished. Closed. No further discussion.” Alastair Bruce OBE is explaining the finer points of the seating arrangements of a formal meal in an aristocratic house circa 1918, and he knows his stuff, right down to the tablecloth.

“It’s quite wrong when a family are having luncheon for the table to be covered with a tablecloth,” he adds firmly. “You have a tablecloth for breakfast and tea, sometimes you have a tablecloth for dinner, but you’d never have a one for luncheon.”

He emphasises the word “never” with a tone of some severity. It may sound nit-picky to be fussing over fusty, old tablecloths but it’s his job to get this stuff right. Bruce, 51, an expert on state and court ritual, is the historical adviser on the hit ITV television series Downton Abbey, and he’s there to ensure that, from teaspoons to tablecloths, manners to medals, Downton remains as true to the period as possible.

Of course, this can’t always be the case. Not only have eagle-eyed viewers picked up on a number of anachronisms, but Bruce insists that there’s a balance to be struck between historical accuracy and entertainment. The tablecloth is a case in point.

Downton Abbey, the second series of which is showing on Sunday evenings, is filmed at Highclere Castle, Newbury, Hampshire, with the permission of the owners, Lord and Lady Carnarvon. They allow the cast and crew access to their home and its contents but insist upon the use of a tablecloth to protect their enormous dining table.

“I find it sad that we’re never able to use the table without a cover on it because the owners, quite understandably, worry about their table,” says Bruce. “But I would always like our table to be clear of a tablecloth on certain occasions. I’d also like to put more silver down the middle of it but the cameras don’t like it because if you’re tracking a shot down the middle of the table and there’s a whole lot of silver in the way you can’t get good shots across the table. But to me a house like Downton would have a wonderful polished table covered in silver and beautiful flowers.”

It’s a balance the makers of Downton must constantly strive to get right. Historically accuracy, down to the smallest detail, helps to set the scene, but it can’t come at the expense of a shot or, indeed, at the expense of Highclere Castle’s antiques. “I am the historical adviser and the emphasis I have to remember is on the second word,” says Bruce. “We’re making something to entertain so if it gets too laborious, if the detail is too time consuming, then a decision has to be taken to entertain first and put everything else to one side.”

One of the Queen’s heralds, a Territorial Army colonel, a member of the Scots Guards and equerry to Prince Edward, Bruce is keen to highlight his Scottish heritage (his cousin is the present Earl of Elgin). “I’m very proud of being a Bruce,” he says. “King Robert was my predecessor and you can’t wash that out of the bloodstream. And I have no intention of doing so. It’s very annoying that I don’t sound like it but I feel more Scottish than anything else.”

Brought up in Hampshire, he spent much of his childhood in Sutherland and has a cottage in Knoydart. His family history fascinates him and, having been surrounded by protocol as a child, he’s spent his adult life studying its nuances.

An expert on the British monarchy, heraldry and on the social behaviours of the aristocracy through the ages, he has acted as the historical adviser on films including The Young Victoria and The King’s Speech and is the royal, religious and national events commentator for Sky News, covering everything from the papal visit to the recent royal wedding.

His in-depth knowledge of protocol allows him to notice the things a director never would; an actor with his hand in his pocket when that wasn’t normal behaviour for the period perhaps, or servants bringing food into a dining room through the same door that the family walked through. Indeed, much of his work focuses on the dining room, where rituals and traditions would have been observed rigidly.

“I’ve been quite pleased that, with Downton, we’ve established again the concept that the host and hostess do not always sit at either end of the table,” he says. “Rather they sit in the middle of the table because in most houses it meant that the lady of the house could have her back to the fire. At either end of the table it was bloody cold!”

Bruce is speaking from the set where cast and crew are currently filming the Christmas special. Today he’s had to intervene in a spot of inadvertent double kissing. He seems a little bewildered that it takes place now, but assures me that it would be quite anachronistic to portray characters in a First World War drama air-kissing. “I told them we’d have none of that,” he says firmly.

In addition to offering his services as an adviser on both the first and second series, he has twice acted as an extra, experiences which he says have helped him to understand the challenges faced by those working in front of the camera. While he can’t reveal any plot lines, he’s happy to discuss the kinds of things upon which he is called to advise.

“It can be how a toast is given, how people would kiss in those days, how and when they would shake hands,” he says. “Very often they didn’t. In fact shaking hands is quite modern. So I’m there watching when actors who live in the same generation that you and I do are told to act out an arrival, to make sure that they don’t act out an arrival as we would today but in the format that was correct at the time.”

When I use the word “etiquette” to describe his work, he is quick to correct me. “Everyone talks about etiquette,” he says. “I’m interested in ritual. I regard etiquette as rather a weak word. It sounds a bit pretty and to me etiquette is what Mrs Bucket does when she’s throwing a dinner party.

“The reason I get so exercised about the word etiquette is because I see it as profoundly different from protocol.” We’re talking on the phone, he notes, but had we met we’d have shaken hands. That’s the protocol for today. He’s simply concerned with accurately depicting the protocol of a different period.

An important part of this, particularly in Downton Abbey, which looks as closely at the lives of those below stairs as the Lord and Lady of the manor, is expressing the way in which different social classes interact.

When Penelope Wilton, who plays Isobel Crawley, filmed the scene in which her character is first introduced to her butler, she asked Bruce if she should shake his hand. The answer was “no”. Indeed, she wouldn’t have shaken the hand of her social equal, let alone a butler. This is a matter on which Bruce is quite scrupulous, though he admits he doesn’t always pick up on everything.

“In the first episode of series two, I would have liked to have been able to spot the Duke’s hand,” he says forlornly. “First of all I wouldn’t have allowed him to shake hands and, secondly, he had a glove on. You would never, never shake hands with a glove on.”

Interestingly enough, however, he is even more of a stickler for following what would have been the correct protocol for characters working below stairs. Among the aristocracy, he explains, status was so established that they were less bothered about it. “It’s below stairs where it really mattered if you were a first or a second footman,” he says, “or how close you sat to the butler at the table.”

As such, he has worked hard to ensure that whenever a scene is being filmed in the servants’ hall, and Mr Carson, the butler, walks in, everyone stands up immediately as a mark of respect. “I always remember a lovely story I heard about an actor who asked for advice on how to play a king,” he says. “The response was that you don’t play the king, you become the king when everyone around you treats you as such.”

The author of a number of books on the subject, Bruce’s knowledge of court ritual, of the ways in which the aristocracy interacted with one another over the years, is extensive.

He may not concern himself with etiquette, but when people meet him does he find them particularly careful that they’re minding their manners around him?

“God I hope not,” he says with a laugh. “If you’re producing a film about a period and you want to know how to get it right, I’m your man. But if you want to have a party and you want to pass the port round to the… oh, I couldn’t care less what you do. Just have fun and enjoy it. That’s the nature of life today. And it will be the job of somebody in 100 years’ time to advise on what it would have been like when Alastair Bruce spoke to The Scotsman. How would he have done it? And they’ll all be amazed that we started by saying hello.”

• Downton Abbey is on ITV1 on Sundays at 9pm.